Almost five years since a military coup ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, democratically elected in 2011, much of Thailand cannot wait for its next election to happen.
Under the military junta, called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), that has ruled the country since 2014, a new election has been postponed several times, placing many Thais on edge. The recent announcement of a new schedule by the Election Commission, initially set for February, then moved to March, was a welcome news to many, even as concerns remain.
The highly anticipated 24 March 2019 vote in Thailand is meant to “send a message,” said Orapin Yingyongpathana, editor in chief of The Momentum, an online platform. This “elections is meaningful (because) democracy is vital,” she said in a media-public forum organized recently by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).
The event, called “A Public Forum on Election and Media Coverage in Thailand: Challenges and Opportunities for Broadening Public Discourse,” gathered 60 representatives from news organizations, journalists’ groups, and civil society to discuss the role of the media during elections, and the state of its coverage of political issues.
Yingyongpathana said that her online publication is working hard to inform the public on issues relating to this political exercise, and is “making sure their voices are heard.”
“We (media) have stretched ourselves thin. We need to plan,” said Yingyongpathana. She urged the Thai press to persist in providing the public with in-depth coverage and innovative storytelling despite limited resources and mounting pressures from the government.
“The election is difficult, complicated … and it has nothing to do with us (media),” she added, emphasizing the need for journalists to tackle in earnest the political situation and actors in their reportage, even well beyond the upcoming elections.
The next polls are widely seen as a litmus test for the restoration of political normalcy — or better still, democracy — in Thailand considering past political unrests and the current uncertainties gripping a nation that has been rocked by countless military coups since 1932, often ending weeks or months of street protests and political turmoil.
Chonthicha Jangrew, coordinator of the non-profit Democracy Restoration Group, said “the political situation in Thailand is far from normal. We live in a climate of fear.”
She said the media must refrain from “(being) neutral” and serving “as the government’s mouthpiece” even if free expression and press freedom have been severely undermined in the country. Simply reporting is not enough. Journalists should serve as an “election watchdog,” she said.
Prasong Lertratanawisute, director of the ISRA News Agency, which focuses on investigative journalism, urged reporters to “ask questions differently” and “identify different angles for coverage” if only to keep the public informed and engaged amid unrelenting suppression of media freedom in the country.
“Follow the money,” said Lertratanawisute. Fundraising by and donations into political parties’ and candidates’ campaign kitties are potential leads for stories, he said.
Tanawat Wongchai, a student at Chulalongkorn University and an officer of the Student Union of Thailand, echoed Jangrew’s view, saying the media “can take sides” and still uphold their professional and ethical principles. “Giving equal space to all parties is not neutral, the rule is not fair from the start,” referring to election regulations that are skewed in favor of the ruling junta and political parties allied with it.
As an activist, Jangrew said she looks to the media for the monitoring and reporting of human rights violations in the country. “People are being persecuted,” she said, referring to state actions to clamp down on independent voices, including the press, trying to assert their fundamental freedoms, including their right to free expression. Such reporting is going to be “an indicator of whether this election will be free (and) fair.”